Roald Dahl must take up lots of space on any kid’s bookshelf, not only because he is so prolific, but he is so fearless and fantastic. His writing grabs the shoulders a kid and is not afraid to shake them, to scare them, to offer a world that may seem perfectly disappointing to adults.
The Witches is exactly this kind of story. Part instruction manual on identifying witches, part adventure story of a nameless little boy that suffers under the hands of the worst witches, this story offers a view of childhood seldom seen anymore: where kids lose, but are okay with it anyways. Imagine!
Written in first person POV, Dahl addresses the reader directly, countering the ever-popular image of a black hat witch familiar to any small child and seeding the concept of the everywhere witch, disguised, hard to detect, possibly everywhere. Once informed by his truth-telling, cigar-smoking grandmother who feeds him the critical information he needs to detect and later out-wit the witches, Dahl then creates two witch encounter scenes, as the narrator’s adventure unfolds. Here’s the scene where the little boy encounters “a strange woman” while playing in a tree.
“I have a present for you,” she said, still staring at me, still smiling, still showing her teeth and gums.
I didn’t answer.
“Come down out of that tree, little boy,” she said, “and I shall give you the most exciting present you’ve ever had.” Her voice had a curious rasping quality. It made a sort of metallic sound, as though her throat was full of drawing pins.
How well we can hear the creepy voice of this woman, even just from the first sentence. Part of what makes the witches this little boy encounters so unsettling is that Dahl asks us to imagine the truth of their horrible bodies, hidden under their gloves, wigs and shoes.
In the second witch encounter, Dahl pushes the stakes for our narrator beyond his possibility for escape. One interesting thing to note here is that Dahl transgresses the unspoken rule that “the monster must never touch” the child in kid’s lit. Our attention is really on the Grand High Witch in this scene, who doesn’t touch him, but pours the formula into his mouth. Nonetheless, his mouth is being forced open by other hands.
And out little narrator loses! When does that ever happen in children’s stories? He is sniffed out (“dog droppings!”) and turned into a mouse. That the boy prefers living as a mouse and prefers a shorter life, to die with his grandmother is an odd twist, given that most children’s stories today go to great lengths to right any wrong.
The Witches is scary, but like many Dahl books, has enough silly in it to make it wonderfully scary for young children. Blake’s rough sketches also keep the gruesome details presented comic and loose. A classic, not to be missed.